The Toronto Raptors are not entering the season with the usual expectations surrounding them. That is less on the Raptors and more due to the changes the Eastern Conference teams have gone through.
The Toronto Raptors have always benefited from playing in a much weaker Eastern Conference throughout the years. That wasn’t the recipe for their success, but facing weaker adversity is always a nice ingredient to have. However, this off-season had the Eastern Conference teams go through several changes that put them on a similar level to the West in terms of competition.
The teams who are expected to dominate got better — Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers — while the weaker teams struggling for a playoff spot have also significantly improved — Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards, Charlotte Hornets. This is not even including the teams who have their stars coming back after battling injuries all year long — Durant and Irving with the Nets and Victor Oladipo with the Pacers.
Then there are the Conference Finalists who are more or less on the same level as last year — the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat.
Meanwhile, the Toronto Raptors have gotten worst losing both Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka to maintain cap flexibility for 2021. For the Toronto Raptors, this season is going to be a transition year. An opportunity to showcase that they are just one piece away from the championship in an attempt to lure stars for 2021.
Are Toronto Raptors behind their competition this season?
The top teams getting better does slot them behind the likes of the Bucks and 76ers, but they are still on the same echelon as the Celtics and Heat. The next tier would have to be the Nets and Pacers. The Nets have to prove themselves, and the Pacers have to bet on Oladipo going back to his 2017-2018 form if they want any real success. Then there are the Hawks, Wizards, and Hornets who are looking to make a playoff push.
The Toronto Raptors are going to be a good team no matter what and last year is a prime example of that with all the injuries they incurred. For the majority of last season, they had one of Gasol, Lowry, VanVleet, or Siakam injured at one point or another; that clearly didn’t stop them from getting the league’s third-best record before the pandemic.
That’s not going to change this year because they lost both of their centers. They may not be the league’s second seed (then again we never know, no one expected them to finish that high last year) but we know they are going to be playing a winning formula of basketball as they always do. Their core group of Lowry-VanVleet-Anunoby-Siakam led by coach Nick Nure is a group destined for playoff basketball.
The Toronto Raptors will be playing against better competition
To answer the initial question of the title: No, the Raptors will not be playing catch-up this season. Games will be tougher than most years past, but there is no world where they are a team from the outside looking to get in.
What were easy games against teams like the Wizards, Hornets, Hawks, will end up being closer battles this season. We never know if the Raptors will be victims of a 40-10-11 Westbrook night. Nonetheless, the Raptors are better than all three of those teams at the end of the day. They have better depth, coaching, and players who play both sides of the floor. The Raptors will be the team to beat in those encounters (unless you’re the American media).
Where the Raptors will be tested most is when they face anyone in the East’s new top seven. In the past two seasons, we all knew who the top six were going to be from the start: Bucks, Raptors, 76ers, Celtics, Heat, Pacers. Now the Brooklyn Nets will be added to the list of top teams in the East that’ll be a lock for the playoffs.
This season won’t be the usual walk to the park. The Raptors will no longer have as many free wins (the Bulls and Cavs are still there) as they usually get against the lower level teams. The new top seven will be competing for their lives for the best available playoff spot and that includes the Raptors.
This season can be a representation of how the Raptors would do if ever they were in the Western Conference (to a degree).